Solving Customer Service Problems When You Travel
How’s this for scary? Last year, nearly one in four flights in the U.S. did not arrive at its destination on time and 32.8 million bags were either lost or mishandled.
Here s the good news: As a frequent business traveler, you don’t have to be at someone else’s mercy if there’s a snafu in your plans. Read on for four ways you can improve your chances of having a good customer service experience on the road.
WHAT YOU KNOW: Be polite, act professionally.
HOW TO TAKE IT UP A NOTCH: Empathize.
This sounds like first-grade advice, but it works, says Karen Leland, author of Customer Service in an Instant (Career Press, 2008). “How you initially approach the person affects the outcome. And I think it’s about more than just being polite—it’s about getting that person on your side,” says Leland, who trains employees at Fortune 500 companies to become more customer-focused.
By definition, someone working in airline or hotel customer service fixes problems all day long. Imagine how overwhelming that must be. Even though you’re in a pickle, the person you’re dealing with may have seen 100 others like you today. That’s why Leland recommends acknowledging the difficulty of that person’s job, then approaching your problem in a polite, direct way.
Barry Maher, an author and speaker from Helendale, Calif., has used this approach many times with great success. “While everyone else is berating them and complaining, I compliment them on the great job they’re managing to do, often under extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” he says. “Immediately, their attitude changes. I’ve had ticket agents spend 45 minutes trying to get me rebooked on any possible flight out, sometimes even upgrading me to first class.”
Don’t just go up to the counter and say “240 me,” advises consumer travel writer Christopher Elliott, referring to the old Rule 240, which stated that every airline with a delay or cancellation had to give out vouchers to passengers. Since that rule doesn’t apply in today’s brave new frontier of air travel, invoking the old rule can make you seem like a downright know-it-all—and the gate clerk, who could be the key to your ticket home, probably isn’t going to be all that inclined to help you.
WHAT YOU KNOW: Be prepared.
HOW TO TAKE IT UP A NOTCH: Consider Plan B before leaving home.
Scouting experiences aside, the underlying notion is not to get caught unawares when a reservation goes awry.
“When I travel, I take some preventative steps to avoid any problems,” says Elliott. For instance, he confirms every aspect of a trip before stepping out the door. That way, he is unlikely to wind up with a headache from a flight schedule that’s been changed or a hotel reservation that got lost in the system. Text-message alerts from carriers have saved him when he’s in transit and a last-minute change occurs.
Here’s another way to be prepared: Don’t be embarrassed about using old-school techniques like printing out driving directions, rather than relying on GPS with your car rental. It might not always be there. Joe Fisher, a higher-education consultant in Tampa, Fla., learned this lesson the hard way. “Sometimes they may run out of GPS or not have them at all,” he says. But if you’ve planned ahead and already printed out directions, then you won’t have to have a fight with the rental-car staff. You can just get on your way.
Most business travelers know to avoid luggage problems by never checking their bags, but sometimes that’s impossible to avoid. Hiring a luggage service or shipping your bags via FedEx is a better bet than checking luggage. You’ll get a tracking number, so you can see firsthand that your bag is on its way or has arrived at its destination—rather than sitting lost on an airport ramp somewhere.
WHAT YOU KNOW:Front-line employees can’t solve your problem.
HOW TO TAKE IT UP A NOTCH: The VP of marketing is your friend.
Not every peron you deal with has the power to fix your problem, so Leland suggests you ask a straightforward question: “Do you have the authority to handle this, or do I need to talk to someone else?” But if it turns out that the person doesn’t, don’t just ask for a supervisor. Instead, says Leland, keep that person on your side by asking, “Well, what would you do if you were in my situation?”
Elliott says that sometimes you just need to start emailing people to get a problem fixed. If you do, make sure you include someone at the vice-president level in the corporate office. “You’re more likely to get the customer service you want, because your including them in an email will make them take you seriously,” says Elliott. “These VPs check their BlackBerrys obsessively, and if they see a problem, they will email it down the chain to get it fixed.”
What about problems like frequent-flier miles or hotel stay points that aren’t posted in a timely fashion? If a call to that affinity program doesn’t work, Elliott suggests taking the “CC the VP in an email” route again. “These folks really care about fixing these kinds of problems,” he says, “since travelers in their loyalty programs are likely their best customers.” The company will want to do whatever it can to keep those primo customers happy.
And if you really want to make sure your complaint gets attention? Consider sending a paper letter. In an electronic world where paper correspondence is increasingly rare, managers may take more notice of printed letters.
WHAT YOU KNOW: Email can be effective.
HOW TO TAKE IT UP A NOTCH: Use social media to yield quick results.
Elliott says that if he had been emailing a travel company about a problem while it was in progress, but couldn’t reach a resolution after a couple of hours, he’d turn to Twitter.
Twitter, the microblogging site where people “tweet” (post) messages of 140 characters or less, has become the favorite hangout of public relations and customer service reps at all kinds of national organizations. Large travel companies like JetBlue, Southwest, Hertz and Marriott all have a presence on Twitter. Elliott suggests that these companies are using the service as part of their brand-building programs, but savvy customers have learned that these same brand soldiers will do anything to keep complaints about their company from going viral.
“If you tweet a problem about a specific travel company that’s on Twitter, someone will get back to you,” adds Elliott, whose own blog (elliott.org) has become a venting place for cranky customers who couldn’t get travel problems addressed elsewhere.
Now that you have a plan in place, you should have no trouble avoiding problems the next time you’re on the road—but if life does throw you a curveball, at least you’ll know the right way to fix what went wrong.
LEAH INGRAM is a fan of resolving service issues through Twitter.